As Belgium's F-16s return to the skies of Iraq and Syria, significant accountability improvements for civilian harm are needed.
On October 1st, Belgium once again sent its F-16s to participate in Operation Inherent Resolve, fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Yet the Belgian, Iraqi and Syrian publics are still kept in the dark when it comes to civilian harm during previous deployments. The Belgian military to this day refuses to take responsibility for civilians its actions might have killed or injured.
Also this week, an open letter to defence minister Philippe Goffin from eleven civil society organisations including Airwars – calling for greater transparency and accountability for reported civilian harm – has been widely covered by the Belgian media.
Until the end of 2017, Belgium was one of the more active Coalition allies, alternating with the Dutch military. During some 991 declared missions, the Belgians fired nearly one thousand bombs and missiles. A total of 95 Belgian military personnel and a team of four Red Card Holders will now be deployed again until September 2021. According to the parliamentary resolution approving this latest weapon deployment, any possible action in Syria “covers only a buffer zone on the border with Iraq and is much more restricted than in 2017”. The stated aim of the mission is to protect troops on the ground, and to carry out planned or ad-hoc targeted attacks on ISIS.
In August, the Belgian news organisation HLN reported that the Belgian military had updated its weapons to ‘precision bombs’. F-16s will be armed with bombs of the type GBU-39/B Small Diameter Bomb. According to a Belgian military technician, the munition was chosen because of its “surgical precision”.
According to Alma Al Osta, Arms Advocacy Manager with Humanity And Inclusion, this change of munition is not enough: “There is much more to protecting civilians than just choosing a precise weapon. Belgium has indeed chosen GBU-39/B bombs, which are known for their precision, but these bombs weigh around 115kg and are capable of penetrating one meter of steel-reinforced concrete. If this weapon is used on open battlefields without the presence of civilians, then the risk would be smaller. But wars nowadays are fought in towns and cities where people live, children go to school, and civilians gather on markets.”
Besides the direct impact of explosive weapons in urban areas, Al Osta is worried about their secondary effects: “We have no information on how Belgium will prevent civilian harm and mitigate the so-called domino effects of airstrikes, such as trauma, damage to civilian objects, displacement, lack of access to education, health care and agricultural land, contamination with unexploded ordnances, damage to the environment and further instability,” she notes.
The zero civilian casualty myth
In March 2020, Commander of the Belgian Air Component Frederik Vansina refused to answer any questions on Belgian involvement in specific civilian harm incidents and told De Morgen: “Countries within the Coalition show solidarity and neither confirm nor deny [involvement]. Let’s talk about how the Syrian regime and Russia operate there. That’s a different story. Just look at the images of Homs and Aleppo.”
Back in 2017, a senior Belgian official had told Airwars that the government was planning to admit two civilian harm incidents – one at Al Qaim on February 27th 2017 and the second incident on March 21st of that year in the vicinity of Mosul. According to the US-led Coalition itself, the strikes had killed at least two civilians and injured four others. However, the Belgian government then publicly failed to take responsibility for these incidents, and even asserted that its actions had killed zero civilians.
In March 2020, a joint investigation by Airwars, RTL Netherlands, BBC, De Morgen and Liberation revealed that Belgium consistently refuses to acknowledge civilian casualties from its actions, even where the US-led Coalition has conceded particular Belgian strikes to have killed and injured non combatants. In response to this investigation, the Belgian Ministry of Defence stated only that the Belgium Armed Forces (BAF) were “certainly not involved in all events.”
Previous comments by Colonel J. Poesen, head of operations at the Belgian Air Force, indicated that only incidents in which international humanitarian law was possibly violated were being investigated. However, the acknowledged civilian harm events recognised by the Coalition show that civilians are nevertheless killed in military actions, even where they might comply with international humanitarian law.
Lack of parliamentary overview
A major bottleneck to greater transparency and accountability for Belgian military actions abroad is a lack of effective parliamentary oversight. According to a 2018 report by Pax Christi Vlaanderen and Vredesactie, “there is no binding parliamentary approval for foreign missions, nor mandatory evaluations during and after the operation. Moreover, there is no formal and transparent framework under which the government periodically informs parliament about the specific objectives, content and consequences of military operations.”
In the special parliamentary commission Follow-up of Foreign Missions, established in the early 2000s, MPs are confidentially briefed about military interventions. Yf Reykers, Assistant Professor in International Relations at Maastricht University notes: “This commission is special in the sense that there are not many countries having such a commission in which high-level classified information is shared. However, that information cannot be used by MPs who are part of that commission because they are bound to strict confidentiality. They are also unable to verify this information independently with other sources.”
Belgium about to send four #F16s to #Iraq and #Syria as part of #InherentResolve.
For the #warpowers community: parliamentary approval by a remarkable coalition of minority government parties with @de_NVA and far-right @vlbelang. https://t.co/lVAIsQFRzP via @demorgen
— Yf Reykers (@YfReykers) June 26, 2020
The Parliamentary resolution approving the upcoming weapon deployment does include several amendments that call on the government to improve its transparency and accountability practices. For example, Parliament requests the federal government “to communicate publicly, after investigation and taking into account military and security considerations, about possible civilian casualties as a result of Belgian military operations and to ensure active cooperation and exchange with external monitoring groups and human rights organizations.”
Reykers is generally positive about the amendments: “It is progress that Parliament is even considering transparency and accountability practices. That is really a change compared to a few years ago. We see that Belgium is learning from its neighbouring countries, such as the Netherlands, especially after the Hawijah scandal.”
However, Reykers also sees possibilities for the Government to manoeuvre itself through the amendments with minimum levels of transparency and accountability: “The question is if these amendments will bring about structural change. One of the things that is really needed is systematic evaluations [of civilian harm claims] before, during and after a mission, ideally publicly available.”
While the new parliamentary resolution urges the federal Government to improve its transparency and accountability during the upcoming deployment, it is yet to be seen whether Belgium will structurally change its practices – and whether the civilian victims of its previous airstrikes will receive answers.
- An opinion piece by Laurie Treffers for Airwars, related to Belgium’s recent redeployment to Iraq and Syria, was also published in the Belgian daily De Standaard on September 24th 2020.